Archive for the ‘budget’ Category


FOI Daily Dose: Federal government stalls Bloomberg News request for travel budgets; Seattle Times reporter featured on SPJ blog wins public records award

Federal government stalls Bloomberg News request for travel budgets

Bloomberg News reporters are calling out the federal government for stalling numerous records requests, including a recent request for details about out-of-town trips taken by the heads of 57 major departments in fiscal year 2011.

Bloomerg cited special interest in former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s travel budget since a State Department website called “Travels with the Secretary” shows she visited 112 countries and logged 956,733 miles. But the bill to taxpayers for her travels is not listed.

Clinton visited 46 countries during fiscal year 2011 that Bloomberg News requested records for. The news organization filed the request last year, and as of July 12, they’re still waiting for about one-fifth of the departments to respond, including five cabinet offices that have yet to fully comply.

Under Freedom of Information Act, agencies have 20 working days to provide data or offer a timeline for its delivery once a request is filed. The State Department said the request for Clinton’s information may be available next month. Other cabinet offices say it could take until September.

Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, said he doesn’t know what is taking the offices so long to collect the information Bloomberg News requested.

“These are exactly the kinds of records cabinet offices should have at their fingertips,” Blanton told Bloomberg News. “You should not even have to ask for these records. They should be online already.”

Bloomberg News said they filed the request last year as “a test of President Barack Obama’s pledge to run the most open government in history.”

“FOIA is the way for journalists and the American people to know how officials are spending taxpayer dollars, and these delays are an ugly blemish on claims of transparent government,”  Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told Bloomberg News.

Seattle Times reporter featured on SPJ blog wins public records award

Mike Carter, a criminal-justice reporter for the Seattle Times, earned a public records award for his 11-month pursuit of a police memo, the Times announced.

The Washington Coalition for Open Government presented Carter with a Key Award on June 12 to recognize his perseverance in the fight for a Seattle Police Department memo the department claimed did not exist. When Carter confronted the police after waiting 11 months for them to fulfill his records request, they admitted to withholding the memo and gave the Times a $20,000 settlement to avoid a lawsuit.

For more information about Mike Carter and his public records pursuit, see our June 13 blog post.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI Daily Dose: Fighting for access to federally funded research, California Public Records Act at stake

EFF fights for access to federally funded research

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is calling all free information advocates to stand against major publishers they say are working to limit access to taxpayer-funded research through a program called CHORUS.

The Association of American Publishers proposed CHORUS (Clearinghouse for the Open Research of the United States) on June 5 as a way to help readers freely access full-text versions of all peer-review articles that report federally funded research.

But the EFF calls the proposal a “deceptive” way for publishers to control access to content and avoid losing profits from their traditional business model, which involves selling research-based articles back to scientists and institutions for a “massive profit.

The publishers coalition hopes to have an initial proof of concept for CHORUS completed by August 30. In the meantime, the EFF is encouraging open access advocates to tell their representatives in Congress to support a different solution called the Fair Access to Science & Technology Research (FASTR) Act. Under FASTR, federally funded researchers must submit copies of the resulting journal articles to funding agencies that make the research freely available within six months, according to EFF.

California Public Records Act at stake

The fate of public records in California is in the hands of Gov. Jerry Brown this week, who is expected to sign Senate Bill 71, allowing local government agencies to sidestep key provisions in California’s Public Records Act, according to Southern California Public Radio KPCC.

According to an 11th hour “trailer bill” to the new state budget, agencies no longer have to explain why they are unable to meet records requests, and if they do meet the requests, they can provide data in the format of their choosing.

The California Department of Finance calls the decision a budget move that could save the state “tens of millions of dollars a year,” according to KPCC.

But in a letter calling for the governor to veto the “relevant portions” of the bill, Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the legislation will allow local authorities to cut off public access without reason and “ gut key transparency safeguards in California’s most important open-government law.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI Daily Dose: Open records threatened in Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania

Arizona city suggests capping records requests that take ‘long hours’ to complete

Arizona open records laws may be under attack if the legislature passes a bill that threatens to limit the number of information requests a person can file, according to the Arizona Daily Sun. Currently, Arizona law says records must be “open to inspection by any person at all times during office hours.” But Yuma City Records Coordinator Susan Alden told the Daily Sun this law requires long hours for staffers to meet multiple, broad records requests. Even so, she said there is “less need to limit the number of requests someone can submit in a period time,” and more need to allow agencies to charge for research time.

Wisconsin FOI Council calls out organization for labeling their own records private

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is challenging a national federalism and conservative public policy organization for exchanging documents with government officials through private online drop boxes and labeling its own materials with disclaimers saying they are not subject to the Wisconsin open records law, according to the Beloit Daily News.

Michael Bowman, senior director of policy and strategic initiatives for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), said the organization publicizes its final policy decisions. But until then it keeps documents secret so they aren’t mistaken for final policy, the Daily New reported.

The group also uses drop box to exchange documents instead of email because it thinks drop box files are not subject to public records.

But the Freedom of Information Council scoffs at these practices, coming alongside Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy that filed a lawsuit June 6 seeking ALEC’s materials related to a Republican state senator.

“A stamp by a private non-governmental group saying the records that it shares with lawmakers are not subject to open records laws should carry no weight,” Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, told the Daily News.  “Absolutely none.”

Pennsylvania county conceals records for controller charged with felony

A Pennsylvania county denied the Citizens’ Voice news organization’s open records request for a county controller’s email records because he was arrested on felony electronic-surveillance charges, and he allegedly violated the state’s wiretap law, according to the Citizens’ Voice.

The Voice requested copies of the controller’s emails from January to May 2013 and from Jan. 1, 2012 to April 30, 2012, but said on June 11 that they were denied by Luzerne County because the controller “is under criminal and non-criminal investigations.”

The Citizens’ Voice said it plans to file appeals to the state Office of Open Records claiming that it is implausible that all of the controller’s emails are exempt from the Right To Know Law.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett. – See more at blogs.spjnetwork.org/foi

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FOI Update: AP FOIA request? That’ll be $1 million, please.

When The Associated Press asked the Labor Department for secret email addresses of appointed administration employees, the department initially told them it would cost $1 million.

The AP learned that government officials were conducting business via private or “alternative” email addresses last year from an Environmental Protection Agency administrator, according to The Atlantic Wire.

In a press briefing on June 4, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the practice helped officials prevent their inboxes from overflowing with unwanted messages. He assured journalists and citizens there was nothing lurking behind the private emails they couldn’t access by submitting a FOIA request.

“Let’s be clear — this is a practice consistent with prior administrations of both parties, and, as the story itself made clear, any FOIA request or congressional inquiry includes a search in all of the email accounts used by any political appointee,” Carney said.

But the AP submitted requests to several government agencies for the email addresses about three months ago, and so far, responses have been spotty.

Ten agencies say they’re still processing requests, and two agencies, the Health and Human Services Department and the Interior Department, have been reluctant to release certain employee’s email addresses or (unsuccessfully) requested that the AP keep those addresses quiet.

But the strangest (and most alarming) response came from the Labor Department, which told the AP that their FOIA request would cost more than $1.03 million to process, and even if the AP paid, they said finding the emails would still take 14 weeks.

According to the AP: “(The department) said it needed to pull 2,236 computer backup tapes from its archives and pay 50 people to pore over old records. Those costs included three weeks to identify tapes and ship them to a vendor, and pay each person $2,500 for nearly a month’s work.”

Of course, the department later admitted that asking for that much money is against its own FOIA rules (the same rules it cited asking AP for the money in the first place), and it provided the email addresses.

According to FOIA.gov, there is no initial fee required to submit a FOIA request, but the agency can charge for the time it takes to search for records and duplicate them, typically after the first two hours of search time or the first 100 pages of duplication.

FOIA.gov says:

“You may always include in your request letter a specific statement limiting the amount that you are willing to pay in fees. If an agency estimates that the total fees for processing your request will exceed $25, it will notify you in writing of the estimate and offer you an opportunity to narrow your request in order to reduce the fees.”

Luckily, the AP enforced their rights instead of narrowing their request.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI Update: OpenSecrets.org unveils IRS data on ‘dark money’ non-profits

OpenSecrets.org, run by the Center for Responsive Politics, unveiled the largest set of public IRS data on politically active non-profits June 4 to help track down donors of “dark money” that has skyrocketed to hundreds of millions of dollars during the past three elections.

“Dark money” refers to money given to non-profit groups from undisclosed people, unions and corporations. Since non-profit organizations do not legally have to name their donors, OpenSecrets says politically active spenders who want to “game the IRS” only have to “create a 501(c)(4) tax exempt group and spend away.”  Then they can “exploit definitions and disarray” before relaxing, regrouping and procreating.

Using this method, political spenders have turned some non-profits into top-secret money sources funneling “hundreds of millions of dollars into the electoral system while dodging the disclosure requirements that apply to almost all other organizations that support or oppose political candidates,” according to OpenSecrets.

Although the IRS is supposed to curb the political influence of these non-profits, OpenSecrets says their failure to do so has resulted in non-profit spending during federal elections increasing from $5.2 billion to $300 billion in the past six years alone. They say increased spending primarily funds direct appeals to vote for or against particular candidates.

The Center for Responsive Politics has been collecting and processing this data on politically active non-profits for the past year and a half.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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FOI Daily Dose: High fees in California and stress over a school survey

Journalists and open government advocates in California are riled up about Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal they fear could limit access to public documents.

California courts already charge $15 for court records searches lasting longer than 10 minutes. Under the new proposal, the courts could charge $10 for every name, file or information that comes back on a search, regardless of the time spent—a small fee some fear will come at a large price if it limits public access.

Initially, opponents such as California Senator Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, thought the fees would stifle investigative reporting in newsrooms where journalists are already pinching pennies.

According to a Courthouse News Service report, a California Assembly committee rejected the fee increase, and the state Senate committee approved it with the stipulation of an elusive press exemption. But what that exemption looks like is anyone’s guess.

Jim Ewert of the California Newspaper Publishers Association told Courthouse News Service the exemption was added before the hearing on Thursday, and he just found out about it that morning.

“No one involved us in any of those conversations,” he said.

Even with the exemption, Ewert thinks any price for free information is too high, especially when the public is under-educated about government court activities in the first place.

“Number one, we don’t know what the exemption does. Number two, it’s just a bad idea to deny access to records that the public has already paid for, and shield the public from an institution that it already has very little understanding about,” Ewert said.

On a less FOI (but still relevant) note, a high school teacher in Batavia, Ill., faced scrutiny for reminding students about their constitutional rights before administering an allegedly self-incriminating school survey, according to the Daily Herald.

The survey, meant to measure students’ social-emotional well-being, included questions about their drug and alcohol use. When social studies teacher John Dryden noticed his students’ names were printed on their surveys, he told them they had the Fifth Amendment right to avoid incriminating themselves by not answering the questions.

But administrators deemed Dryden’s decision unprofessional because he did not consult authority before he spoke. Sources say the school board met Tuesday to discuss disciplinary actions against Dryden in closed session, but so far the outcome of the meeting (if it even happened) is mum.

Since the survey was administered in mid-April, students and parents who support Dryden have started an online petition yielding more than 4,200 signatures to “Defend and Support” the teacher they say is simply trying to “make his students aware of their rights as citizens.”

And in the heat of the First Amendment issues of late involved the Obama administration, teaching students about their constitutional rights might be more considerate than criminal.

That’s all for now, folks. But as you know, First Amendment issues are all around us, so tell me what’s going on in your neighborhood.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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